Should Kids Be Encouraged to Pursue Engineering Degrees?

by Darwin on July 2, 2013

I just read a great post from Joe at Retire by 40 about a letter he got. He’s an engineer (recently retired) and often shares his personal experiences and insights on being an engineer. So, check out his post here first for his thoughts and comments. But this was timely because we have kids and they’re getting to the age where you can start to tell what their interests are and what they may want to focus on in highschool and then into college of course.

Many people say that since I’m an engineer and have had a modestly successful career that naturally, my kids should be engineers. My oldest has an extreme propensity for the sciences and he’s very analytical – to the point that he scrutinizes and questions anything that doesn’t seem plausible to him or backed by evidence (this makes highly religious adults and kids very uncomfortable but it’s funny to watch). The thing is, I don’t push this on him at all. He asks a lot of questions and I usually give him the most commonly accepted answer given today’s knowledge.

I’m going to do my best to not lift Joe’s pros and cons and focus on some less obvious factors to consider if thinking about pursuing an engineering career:

Why Engineering Could Make for a Good College Choice/Career Choice

  • Respect – When you graduate from a decent school with an engineering degree, you have instant respect for life. Since the dropout rate usually exceeds 50% and most of them end up in business school or law school (or out of school altogether), there’s certainly some respect that comes with making it through the grueling curriculum. As I mention more below, those same lawyers and business majors ironically end up making a heck of a lot more money… But on the respect thing from a social standpoint, that’s no reason to pick a college major. But in the corporate world, respect matters a lot. Higher ups know without even talking to you that you’re “smart”, you’ll be able to handle complex assignments and analyze things differently the a humanities major. It’s a stereotype, that while often wrong (we all know dumb engineers, dumb doctors, dumb lawyers and dumb scientists), continues to persist.
  • Versatility – Many of my graduating class went on to work on wall street, went on to be actuaries, or even doctors (my old roommate is now a doctor).  For many, an engineering degree will also lead to jobs in an emerging industry such as information technology. Keep in mind that IT jobs do not necessarily involve fixing network problems within a business, as the definition has evolved to include information security, cyber-crime security and forensics. In fact, it is estimated that the need for workers within this industry will grow by 22 percent by 2020, giving those who earn a compatible degree countless job opportunities. An engineering degree also provides a solid base for those who wish to take the next step in their education and move on to an advanced degree like the MS in Information Security. Again, the theme here is that if you can handle a rigorous engineering curriculum, you can pretty much do whatever you want in post-graduate study or in the workplace.
  • Just a Stepping Stone – The nice thing about my engineering degree was that I wasn’t stuck doing engineering for my career.  It was a great foundation for learning and my resume, but I definitely wouldn’t have been happy doing pure chemical engineering work for decades.  It often gets you in the door and you learn the basics on the job based on your degree, but then you move into other roles.  For instance, I moved from a manufacturing area into a technical role into a procurement area and then project management for supply chain initiatives.  Some degrees leave you very pigeonholed.
  • Lifelong Benefit in Terms of Critical Thinking and Logic – Not a day goes by where I don’t complete some sort of complex calculation in my head or ruminate about why something is in the natural world. A rigorous engineering curriculum trained me to think differently. There are so many things I know now that I didn’t before my schooling that many of my friends and family still believe. They believe vaccines cause autism even though numerous studies have disproven these assertions that were based on outright fraud by a UK doctor since disbarred. They believe humans didn’t evolve (or anything else for that matter) but were plopped here by a supernatural being. They believe UFOs routinely cross light-years of interstellar space only to crash once they reach earth. They can’t perform routine assessments of risk, reward and financial modeling. These are things that are just second nature to me now and I don’t thank anything I learned in highschool or a high IQ (I’m average), but rather, my engineering curriculum.

Why Engineering Might Not Work Out

  • Outsourcing – Even though the degree is versatile, it’s quite easy to be outsourced.  India and China are graduating millions of engineers a year who are willing to work for a fraction of what an American expects.  Granted, they’re often not the same caliber, and may not possess the same creativity and social prowess that an American may when working for a US firm, but the outsourcing trend doesn’t bode well for many forms of physical manufacturing on US soil, which many engineers support, even if not directly.  I’ve already held jobs which have been outsourced; I just wasn’t there when it happened!
  • Co-Workers and Bosses Are Often Lame – If you think your college class full of cut-throat introverts and nerds is bad, when you go into the workplace, you often get another shock. Picture those people now with some power and prestige.  After 10 or 20 years in a company, even people with the worst people skills still end up working their way into people manager positions.  Sometimes they come around and turn out to be great friends and colleagues. And sometimes you wonder how these people function in the real world – and why you have to work for them.  If you always pictured yourself working in a “fun place with meaning” where it’s Happy Hour every Thursday night and this young crowd of co-workers is living in harmony, an engineering stint probably won’t live up to your expectation.
  • Don’t Be Fooled by the Pay – Every year, the top 10 highest paying starting salaries have 7-8 different types of engineering degrees. Here’s the thing – those are starting salaries. I have tons of friends who majored in everything from Anthropology to History to Economics that are all now killin’ it in various financial roles. From hedge funds to financial advisors to accountants, the financial jobs always end up paying a heck of a lot more and these guys did a heck of a lot less in college. Sure, some of them went to get CPA, MBA degrees later, but so did I. And they’re still making double or more than what I make. I just think the curve is much different for engineers. It starts high but progresses quite slowly. In finance and some other fields, it starts lower and then skyrockets so by late twenties, that high starting salary doesn’t look so great in comparison.
  • Engineering Ain’t What It Used to Be – Back when I was an engineer, you learned some sort of physical field. Mine was chemical engineering. I learned all about heat, momentum and mass transfer. I learned how to design chemical plants, how chemical reactions worked, some coding and a ton of math. Now, everyone equates an engineer with a programmer. “Computer” engineer, “Software” engineer, “Database” engineer, etc. So, the phrase doesn’t really mean what it used to. And depending on where you work, these newer software-related roles are much more in demand and pay much better than the physical engineering fields (save for petroleum of course). Just know that an engineer can mean many different things now.

Would Be Interested in Your Thoughts and Whether You’d Suggest Engineering For Your Child


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

retirebyforty July 2, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Thanks for the mention!
Yeah, one big downside now is that you just sit in front of the computer all day long no matter what kind of engineer you are. You’re right about the money too. Engineers are pretty well off compare to most people, but if money is your goal, then finance is the way to go.


krantcents July 2, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I always recommend doing what you like to do. Of course, you need more than just interest, you should have the skills and knowledge to be good at it. Genetics has some influence, but it is not everything. I am very good with math , numbers etc and a huge interest in business. It made sense for me to go into accounting and finance. If you like what you do, you will be good at it and the money follows.


thepotatohead July 10, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I really wanted to be an engineer when I was a kid as I liked tinkering with stuff, but when I got to highschool I realized that I didn’t want to learn the required math courses. I think if your gonna end up in an office type job, engineering certainly isn’t a bad way to go. Pretty much these days you have to put up with BS and tons of computer work in most office environments, so you might as well make that nice engineer salary :p


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